During and since the Ottawa convention, there has been a lot of soul searching about what it means to be a Liberal. I realise I keep returning to this question. What is the soul of the Liberal Party? And how will the Party fulfill the goals of its soul?
It’s an existential question, to be sure, but one that challenges all political parties.
We saw such soul searching in full force at the NDP leadership debate in Halifax this past weekend. Thomas Mulcair sees a party that can finally be winners. Brian Topp isn’t ready to sacrifice socialism at the altar of victory. Nathan Cullen would rather be the “conscience of parliament”, that traditional role of the NDP, cooperating earnestly with Liberals and Greens to defeat Stephen Harper. Mr Mulcair basically called Mr Cullen a loser for reinforcing the notion that the NDP can’t form a government; Peggy Nash called Mr Cullen defeatist, insinuating he was disrespecting the achievements of Jack Layton.
Yet, on full display were the three different views of the NDP: the competitor, the true believer and the Boy Scout. All three have followings within the fabric of their Party’s soul. There are likely even more such notions of what it means to be the NDP as well.
The Tories, God knows, have their divisions. Those divides may seem to be tempered and steamrolled by the iron-fisted control of the PMO newspeak and conditioned by the tantalising prospect of winning, yet they still ferment, with some wings of the Party consistently uncomfortable with other wings of the Party. Having now finally won a majority government, it will be interesting to see which strain of the Conservative soul wins out: will it be libertarianism, Red Tory pragmatism, social conservatism or a Reform-minded agenda?
It’s been said that if the Republican party were in a parliamentary system, it would be at least four parties. This observation is shown in the protracted race we see unfolding in Florida: the enterprising, moderate, establishment Mitt Romney; the populist, dogmatic and demaegogic Newt Ginrich; the libertarian isolationist Ron Paul; and the fundamentalist, socially conservative Rick “I hate gays” Santorum.
Political parties do indeed make for strange bedfellows. They are all loose coalitions of commonality and common cause.
Yet, the Liberal Party of Canada is somehow a bit different. We’ve always prided ourselves less on our rigid understanding of what we are and more on our record of how we’ve been what we are. We value our balancing act of tempering left-leaning instincts–the cause of social justice–with fiscal responsibility–the need for economic growth. In a local race in the last election, I insisted on the phrase, “Liberals: the only progressive and responsible choice”.
Dating back to C.D. Howe, Liberals have prided ourselves less on our ideology and more on managerial competence. That’s a great selling point to win elections and form the government but a terrible one in the trenches of opposition.
Bob Rae has been repeating over and over that we aren’t a party of rigid ideologues, that we’re not a closed shop. Our basic instinct will always be liberalism. In that sense, we do have a clear ideology: individual freedom is best achieved in the sustainable prosperity that comes from equality of opportunity.
These aren’t merely buzz words; that sentence is our commitment to Canadians. We are inflexible–and dare I say ideological–about our liberal goal.
We are wonderfully flexible about the means to achieve our goal.
With Don Tapscott as the convention keynote speaker, we heard about how Liberals must reach openly into a vast network of ideas. Being grounded in the basics of liberalism, we want your ideas! The Liberal Party can be the vehicle to advance your idea if it adheres to our liberal goal: that’s been Bob Rae’s message during and since the convention. We have our ideology; help us make our policy, together.
In his Vancouver speech, Rae opened up to the audience and to online communities, asking for ideas. This open process to achieve our liberal goal will be what defines us: a commitment to find, as that old-time liberal Matthew Arnold wrote, “the best which has been thought and said”.
What is the soul of the Liberal Party? It must be the soul of how Canada works. We’re a country of nations, of neighbours who know you help each other dig out of the snow. Sure there is discord and debate. But, as a country, we transcend that and come together. I always loved those Chrétien-era trade missions. They were called Team Canada. We’re a country immersed in the notion of teamwork. The U.S., with its emphasis on individualism and exceptionalism, watches baseball, the one batter against the one pitcher. We watch hockey: the five players working together, defending the goalie, passing the puck. We’re a teamwork country.
An open party that seeks ideas from all Canadians with basic liberal values is a team. Liberal infighting in the past has always been more about personality and individual ambition than any major policy disagreement. With an open means to (eventually) chose our new leader, this interim period is time for Liberals to be liberal by being open to new ideas that advance our goal.
What’s the soul of our party? Team Canada: a party that is open, inquisitive, cooperative; a party that is first and foremost a team.